Science Outside the Lab North: Investigating Science and Policy in Canada. Part II: Decision-Making

As noted in Part I, along with 11 other Canadian graduate students, I was given the opportunity to attend the second science-policy workshop Science Outside the Lab North (SOtL) in Ottawa and Montreal, earlier this spring. In this post, I outline some of the key themes of the workshop.

Not surprisingly, with such a diverse group of students and speakers, conversations about the plethora of challenges facing policymaking in Canada were wide-ranging. Similarly, nearly as many ideas for solutions were debated. However, some concepts came up in nearly every talk, and several themes emerged as we thought about what was said during the workshop. Here are three of those themes.

Breaking Down Silos, Challenging Hierarchies, and Communicating Science

How to communicate science is a popular topic today, and was a major subject at SOtL. It became very clear that science communication takes on many forms, and good communicators are beholden both to their audiences and the scientific community that they purport to represent. Early in the workshop, an evolutionary biologist and writer emphasized the importance of building confidence within academic circles before communicating science more broadly. Helping scientists to feel comfortable that the “communicator” will speak responsibly on their behalf is key to establishing trust and functional working relationships between researchers and communicators. This speaker, and others, mentioned the importance of “finding the story in the science” when talking with the news media, and ensuring that understanding of the results of science that emerges in public discussion matched the intended interpretation of those results. The speaker alluded to the importance of considering the implications of science for the political system in much the same way as changes in health policy might affect a specific individual. Consider how the research results will affect peoples’ lives individually, the speaker said, and maintain that thought in crafting presentations about research findings. Similarly, a high-level representative in a government ministry recommended “taking the scientific pyramid and flipping it around.” State the conclusions and implications first, and follow up with a description of the methodologies, if necessary, when presenting information to very busy decision-makers and politicians.

Many of the communications issues discussed by the SOtL group exist within and across organizations and agencies, and lie at the heart of efficient operation. For example, a philosopher turned data-scientist employed at a bibliometrics firm told a story about a stint working as a contractor for the federal government. The speaker had been tasked with finding and aggregating data for a report commissioned by a government ministry. During the project, the speaker noticed that a staff member in a different governmental office had previously completed similar work. The speaker had decided to contact that staff member to discuss the ideas, and was surprised when a senior member of the department in which the project was being completed forcefully pointed out that communications protocols had been usurped. The speaker discovered that strict channels of contact exist within some branches of the federal government, which can cause major inefficiencies. We were advised to keep an eye out for social power structures or organizations aiming to achieve particular goals, and question whether they are truly necessary. Take a minute, this speaker suggested, to step back from each new task, ask whether it will help to advance the goals of the group, and whether it been thought-out properly to maximize efficiency of process. In other words, “is this the best way that I can do this?” If the answer to either of those questions is not a resounding “yes,” then rethinking may be necessary. According to many of the speakers, although articulated differently by each, hierarchical holdovers of bygone eras can make more open communication styles and co-operation within departments and across agencies much more difficult than is necessary. This often leads to the frustration of all parties involved.

In broader discussions of Canadian culture, policy development, Indigenous knowledge systems, and political power dynamics, the question of who influences political decisions in Canada emerges. Who is allowed to sit at the table? Do those seats accurately represent the nation as a whole? Who is delegated the task of making policies, and who chooses the policymakers? Who participates in the scientific research that can define those policies at some level, and who decides whether or not that science should be funded? What constitutes “science,” and who are the gatekeepers responsible for these definitions? How can we begin to break down scientific and institutional barriers to improve our capacity for the collaborative work necessary to effectively meet today’s many “wicked problems?”

While each of these questions merit full consideration, some were reflected in a conversation with another impactful speaker. This time, an international non-profit executive, representing an organization at the forefront of research on global challenges related to the environment and sustainability. This speaker’s group is dedicated to a “research enabling” concept by which the communications staff work hand-in-hand with researchers to synthesize, digest, and develop briefing plans directed at policymakers. The group then coordinates meetings and projects between researchers and other interested parties in law, health, policy, or social science, to facilitate a multi-faceted approach to difficult environmental issues. On the question of “who is allowed to participate” in scientific conversations, this organization aims to bring “the voice of the Global South” to research and policymaking. The speaker described the need to transcend the “fragmentation of knowledge systems” common in Western science and frequently employed to keep knowledge-holders of other ontologies away from the bargaining table, often for power-related reasons. After many years of working in science and engineering, this speaker had come to consider himself more an artist, playing a small role to help improve planetary health for future generations. The speaker described selecting “some problem that you are committed to,” and determining the best ways to go about solving that problem – advocating for an issues-driven approach to science. Stepping away from the myth of the Vannevar Bush era that science can be entirely objective and free of political values, the speaker suggested that science is most useful to society when researchers can communicate findings clearly, describe their implications through a variety of media, and use colloquial language when necessary. This kind of a toolkit allows scientists to work with policymakers and the public to determine solutions that best fit the communities they will affect, and broadens engagement across disciplines.

Democratizing Science and Opening-up Research

Following the theme of communication, many of the workshop conversations ultimately led to a discussion about the accessibility of science. There were two major contexts in which these ideas were considered. The first was about the process of building knowledge and streamlining research. One student in particular expressed an interest in the practice of open science. Not only had the student made the decision personally to practice in the open, but also to submit papers only to journals with open access policies. Furthermore, the student described her initiative in leading workshops for other scientists to learn about open practice, what it means, and how to do it. Not surprisingly, this open science advocate was very attentive toward the discussion about open science in government; it seemed that open science was knocking at the door of nearly all the public representatives with whom we spoke, in some form or another.

One recurring subject was the opportunity cost of practising science in a closed environment, as has been typical historically. For long-term projects, how can researchers know whether others have already begun the same or similar studies, if colleagues are not open about their work? Closed processes may limit the capacity for efficient advancement of knowledge by significantly constraining the ability of scientists to collaborate, or even to know about the potential to collaborate, and to build upon one another’s ideas. There are financial implications as well. When designing a policy for science, decision-makers should be aware of the activities of the Canadian scientific community writ-large, so that related funding agencies can distribute monies for new or complementary research, as opposed to supporting redundant research. Speakers representing more than one federal government agency, NGOs, and the Tri-Council of Canada, all agreed that the results of science funded by Canadians taxpayers should be made available publicly, and by extension to other scientists.

With mixed reactions from the speakers, some enthusiastic and others less so, our group talked about how open science could help to engage the public not only in considering the results of scientific studies once disseminated, but also in the process of science, similar to the Reddit science page. This approach would allow scientists to critique research results and offer ideas for ongoing projects, or to indicate potential flaws, before researchers attempted to publish their findings. While possibly an arduous process for scientists to deal with, this idea could also save research teams time in identifying flaws in their projects. Maybe more importantly, engaging the public in science could be a major boon to research in Canada. Theoretically, if citizens feel more involved, and understand the benefits that can be derived from scientific study, perhaps they might be more willing to pay for the process. As further evidence for this idea, a representative of an Ottawa-based NGO, focussed on international development, told us that that his organization will not provide funding to any research team unwilling to commit to open access to the results. Furthermore, a federal government representative, also an open science advocate, described the Liberal Party’s goal to open all non-security-sensitive government data in the future, and work with industry to review intellectual property policy in Canada. This speaker also discussed the need for universities to strive towards “changing the model for success,” and demand that scientists not only take pride in the quality of their research, but also in their ability to involve and communicate their findings with the public.

Embedding Policy Concepts within the Framework of Policy Discussions

One idea in the conversations at SOtL that I personally found most fascinating was the notion of entrenching discussion of policy issues in the processes through which solutions can emerge. The best way I can describe what I mean comes from a meeting with an environmental NGO executive in Montreal. He said that had he known our group was only twelve students, he would have taken us for a walk up Mount Royal to Montreal’s “rooftop” park system, in the middle of the city, with woodland trails and a spectacular view of the downtown and the St. Lawrence River. Some of us were, of course, pained to know what could have been! Why, though, would this speaker wish to climb several hundred feet for a discussion about science and policy in Canada? It seemed a fair question. He mentioned the importance of considering the settings and the media we use to discuss policy issues, and why these points are often entirely left out of policy conversations. He mentioned an environmental justice conference he had helped to organize, in which the high-powered attendees went into the boreal forest outside Helsinki for a camping excursion. There, around the fire under the night sky they discussed the issues of environment and sustainability at a place where everyone could feel and experience the natural world at the core of each conversation. To drive the point home, the speaker noted, it doesn’t make any sense to “talk about poverty at a 5-star hotel in Geneva.”

I encounter this issue occasionally within my field of study at Dalhousie’s Marine Affairs Program. I scratch my head when conference organizers follow rousing public discussion about the problem of plastics in the ocean by providing attendees with appreciative tokens packaged in plastic. The misalignment is not mal-intended, but simply busy people forgetting the importance of attaching action to ideas, a matter that is so, so important.

Ultimately, embedding policy concepts within the framework of policy discussions was truly at the core of the Science Outside the Lab workshop. Rebuilding a foundation of trust between government, academia, and the public by fostering a culture of open communication, transparency, and inclusion within processes of science and policymaking was supported not only in statements but also in action.

While just my interpretation, I think that by suggesting we climb up Mount Royal, the Montreal speaker intended to help us to feel and experience the city, the place, and most importantly the people who should be at the centre of every discussion involving science and policy in Canada.


Author: Simon Ryder-Burbidge


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